Fabio Lovati

Russian Exiles in Tbilisi

Stories of some young Russian voices from across the border trying to build an opposition
Russian girl plays in "April 9" park in downtown - Tbilisi, August 2023

This post is also available in: Italiano

"Sometimes you just have to act,
without thinking of the consequences"

Tbilisi, Georgia

Sudden storm

Maria’s gaze [1] drifts beyond the Mtkvari, from the balcony of her apartment in Tbilisi.
“It was a brave choice – a dangerous one as well,” I shared with her. “Sometimes, one must act without thinking of the consequences,” She replies, fully aware that her decisions will come at a significant cost.: “We were trying to protect an ancient forest in my city, marked for demolition to build a shopping centre,” she shares, sipping her blood-red hibiscus tea. “Even before the protest, I knew that if they wanted, they would find me.”
And they did.

As Vladimir Makarov’s daughter, a past minister in the Chelyabinsk region, her opposition to government policies was baffling, even to the arresting officers. “In the days following the protest, the authorities began to monitor my phone,” says Maria, pausing for a moment; her thoughtful look is marred by a scornful sneer: “A specific agency is charged with these probes, targeting individuals such as myself, labelled as adversaries and branded terrorists. They have the authority to inspect our residences and, upon finding any suspicious elements, to initiate arrests”.

Then came detention: eleven days without sunlight, then released. At that moment, she was unaware of the drastic changes her life was about to undergo in the ensuing months. “The announcement of the mobilization was the point of no return,” she continues. “Upon hearing the news, I faced a challenging but essential decision: leaving home and my loved ones was the only way to keep defending my ideas, you understand?”
A sigh breaks her voice: “Here, at least I can still be part of a change I believe will come soon.”
“What kind of change?” I ask.
“A change no one expects, one that comes and sweeps everything away, like a sudden storm.”

A year and a half after his move, Tbilisi has presented itself as a space of freedom where he has openly expressed his dissent and where, he says, people have shown welcome and compassion. However, in recent months, the situation has changed.
The constant presence of Russian citizens is becoming a source of discomfort for a significant portion of the local population [2]. Additionally, Georgia no longer seems as safe a place as before. “Only a few days ago, a journalist was poisoned. [3] about ten minutes from where I live,” he confides. “I know that my freedom is just an illusion, and day after day, hour after hour, I feel that Tbilisi is no longer a safe place. I feel stuck as if I am still in prison.”

Flyer in Maria's house reading " Russian soldiers do not help a murderer"- Tbilisi, August 2023
Flyer in Maria’s house reading “Russian soldiers do not help a murderer”- Tbilisi, August 2023

Across the border

Since the beginning of the war in Ukraine, more than one million Russian citizens have left the country [4]. Although many have returned throughout the conflict, a substantial number have stayed outside their national borders, and their presence remains evident in many of Russia’s neighbouring countries. In addition, the military mobilization initiated on Sept. 21, 2022, has intensified migration, abetted by fear for one’s safety and dissent, perceived by a part of the population.

Young generations, families, journalists, former politicians and activists have thus established a new home in countries such as Armenia, Kazakhstan and Turkey. Prominent among them is Georgia, to which more than a hundred thousand Russians have permanently emigrated [5] – accomplice to the ease of entry into the country- bringingg with them a baggage of mixed emotions from which new ideals are surfacing, bridges thatcontributeg to the development of civic initiatives in Georgia and Russia, not without difficulty.

Marked by a history of wars and struggles for independence in the regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, Georgia does not seem to offer the Russians a warm refuge. Walking through the streets of the Caucasian capital, every wall seems to remind him, painting a picture of distrust and anger, the result of a tangible reminder of the still open wounds between the two peoples. Flags of Ukraine and Europe are displayed from the balconies of homes, which are often flanked by white and blue flags, born out of a feeling of protest, silent symbols of representation of a large segment of Russian citizens who have made Tbilisi a centre in which to build an opposition, across the border.

Alexej tells the story of Russian political prisoners - Tbilisi, August 2023
Alexej tells the story of Russian political prisoners – Tbilisi, August 2023

“… even a simple sketch,
without apparent meaning,
can convey a glimmer of hope.

Free Expression

Tbilisi has become more than a haven for Maria and her compatriots: coworking spaces, clubs and pubs scattered throughout the city centre host meetings where new political horizons are discussed and initiatives to support alternative information campaigns are promoted.
Just as Denis, a freelance journalist and former promoter of Navalny’s political campaigns, did when he was still living in St. Petersburg. “Thanks to the support of organizations aimed at upholding human rights, I found a safe way to cross the Russian borders,” he says, “I reached Kazakhstan where I was rejected; however, then to Armenia, today to Georgia, tomorrow who knows,” he tells me as he sets up preparations for the next event. The hall fills with his fellow citizens with different stories united by the same ideals.
“In an ever-changing environment, dialogue is crucial,” he explains. “It is not easy to build, but I believe that strengthening communication with those still in Russia could be one of the possible solutions to deal with a situation inside the country that is becoming, day by day, more intricate and worrisome.”

Prominent among the initiatives are testimonies by former prisoners: events in which young girls and boys who reach Georgia share their experiences of nonviolent protest followed by arrest and detention. The lights go out, silence falls, and I sense an aura of concern and uncertainty, partly due to my presence. “You’re welcome,” Alexej, a young activist who, along with Denis, was in charge of organizing the event, tells me. “And you can take pictures of Denis and me, but please don’t frame the faces of the other people present.”
Although Georgia remains a haven for many, in recent times, the perception of safety seems to have diminished. “Since our arrival, rumours have been circulating that Russian agents are intent on monitoring our initiatives.[6]” Alexej confides to me, confirming growing concerns.

Following the discussion, participants are given space to write letters to political prisoners still held in Russia. “In drafting, we have to be very careful to avoid censorship,” Denis explains as he sketches a drawing of a small bear on the letter, “even a simple sketch, with no apparent meaning, can convey a glimmer of hope.”

Masha, young activist first arrested and then detained in prison - Tbilisi, August 2023
Masha, young activist first arrested and then detained in prison – Tbilisi, August 2023
Denis, during the interview on the porch of his apartment - Tbilisi, August 2023
Denis, during the interview on the porch of his apartment – Tbilisi, August 2023

Russian soul

It is a much deeper issue than how it is told,” Leda explains to me in the dimness of her room as she hands me a steaming cup of Turkish coffee. “While many people have a passive attitude toward government policies, it is objectively difficult to protest in the face of facts due to increasingly timely and stringent censorship.”
A Russian activist known among dissidents for her installations in Red Square and on the streets of Moscow, Leda has experienced firsthand what it means to sacrifice one’s freedom for an idea. “The problem is that even today, the predominant attitude consists of statements like ‘Okay, we are against the war,’ but this is not enough and does not translate into concrete actions,” he confesses to me. “We must take action and put our safety on the back burner.”
A thought widely shared by most Russians living in Tbilisi and manifested through promoting solidarity initiatives. Many stem from the typical feeling of contributing to all those who, because of the ongoing conflict, have lost a home, loved ones and the prospect of a future.
Support comes in many forms, such as Itaka Books’s case. This place was the brainchild of Stas Gaivaronsky to offer Russian-language books in exchange for Ukrainian refugees.
“Stav is the owner of the bookstore, but in recent months, he is no longer here,” a young Russian girl who runs the store shyly tells me. “We first came here in 2017, and after a short walk through the city streets, we immediately fell in love with it. Given recent events, we intend to stay and provide support as we can.”

Portrait of Leda Garina – ©property reserved

For many Russians, staying in Georgia means taking action, free from government oppression, in support of those who, like them, have had to leave their homes. “We counter war with humanity,” said Katia, a young Russian woman who decided to move to Tbilisi permanently to support Ukrainian refugees at Volunteer Tbilisi.
“I have found a new family here, which allows me to stand up against this conflict and lend a concrete hand to those who have lost everything to the war,” she confides, proudly showing me the work she and many other boys and girls do every day to support Ukrainian families. “We try to provide three hundred and sixty degrees of assistance: we distribute food, medicine and personal hygiene items to families reaching Georgia.”

And the need for help is immense and essential to build a bridge with the rest of the citizens still in Russia. “Most of our funds come from Russia, and over the past few months, we have noticed an inflexion in donations, partly as a result of the impoverishment caused by European sanctions,” explains Daniel, a volunteer with Emigration for Action, an organization born out of the desire of Russian emigrants to help Ukrainians in need. “In this way, even citizens who used to support us from within Russia are now finding it difficult to give to charity, unable to sustain a steady flow of donations.” Daniel looks up. “This means we will have to find alternative systems to raise funds, as the conflict is still ongoing, and until then, people will not stop coming.” Daniel looks up at me and smiles, “And we will continue to help them as long as we can.”

Moscow – Installation in front of a public building that reads, “Your flowers will sprout on the tomb of the patriarch” – ©2023, All Rights Reserved
Moscow – Moscow Metro installation reading “My father returned from the war without legs and now says he would rather have died.” – ©2023, All Rights Reserved
Red Square, Moscow – Performance in opposition to war in Ukraine – ©2023, All Rights Reserved
Text & Photos: Fabio Lovati 
Original text in Italian - In house translation
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Tbilisi, Georgia
DooG's Contributor
Fabio Lovati
Journalist | Photographer

© Portfolio - Russian Exiles in Tbilisi

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